Everything Matters

Everything Matters
Zim's Bottling of Strawn

Friday, November 29, 2013

Where Did You Go?

You let me down.
My gas gauge blinking E for the last twelve miles.
I pulled into your gas station. Desperate.
Your sign says “Gas, Oil & Parts”. Such a kidder.

I’ve been inching down your too-slender Bankhead Highway, now Finley Road, west of Putnam. Callahan County just east of Baird. A new friend tipped me off…
In a Model T, I’d have wide pavement to spare. Today, much faster than twenty and I’d be sucking bar ditch dirt.
Nothing to see here.
I passed a granite Texas Centennial Marker back up the road, surrounded by turkey vultures atop hack-cedar fence posts. The 1874-1875 military telegraph line crossed there, connecting Fort Concho to Fort Griffin.
The year Comanche Natives were herded north.
No coincidence, that.

Black and white stripes mark the center spine of your phantom road west. No shoulders. No signs. No billboards.
No gas.

I’ve crossed four dying bridges coasting to this place, rusted rebar finger bones poking through crumbling concrete guard rails. The Model As of long ago safe from raging flood waters that came along once a year, or not.

Is that your frame house behind the gas station, back in the trees, fallen to the ground? Abandoned or fled or did you just move on? Disgraced in every way but fire.
Are you back there, hiding from me in those shadows?
Your neighbor’s farm house crowds us, from across the road. I bet they made you uncomfortable, right there when your customers pulled up. A dad or widowed grandmother once answering that front door. Unlike yours, their empty home stands proud. Shoulda seen to that leak in the roof…
I hear the monster that killed you, if you’re dead, roaring low over my left shoulder.
Interstate 20, though it looks like you skedaddled before that Faster-Better-Longer blew through and spoiled your fun.
Will great grandkids explore that abandoned four-lane someday, they distracted from Whatever Comes Next?
Will they mourn the eccentricities of their ancestors,
Even know their names?
Our names?
I know you’re here. Need you to be here.
But again today,
Like yesterday,
Like tomorrow, you’re not.

Best wishes, wherever you are.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Not Today...from about 5 years ago

Not Today

Most days I write until about noon, then go walk, then spend the afternoon researching or interviewing future stories. If I’m in Weatherford, I walk along an old rail bed, the Lake Mineral Wells State Trailway.

I’m fried from five or six hours of writing. And tense. The walk burns that off. Let’s me continue. Reminds me to listen.

Today when I get to the trail parking lot another car is there, bikes stuffed in the back. I walk up to the gate to pay my $5. A lady climbs out of the car.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you know how much it costs to use the trail?”

There’s a sign listing fees, duct taped to a pole, it too a victim of this state’s budget woes.


I tell her this.

She’s studying the laminated sign as I walk away down the trail, hoping she and her kid won’t make too much noise.

I hear the young boy’s voice over my shoulder, from their car. “It costs $10?”

I see a deer, cardinals and squirrels. Trees are greening up – getting ready for spring. This town grows quickly. Not many places small children can safely ride bikes, though a greenbelt walkway near Town Creek will solve that soon.

The mother and her son never ride past me on the trail.

I get back to the parking lot after my walk. The car, the mother, the little boy are gone. A mother and her son drove their car out here, bikes piled hopefully in the back. They obeyed the law.

It costs $10.

No bike ride today.

It’s spring break for Weatherford school children this week.

For one little boy, it’s not.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Zim Zimicki’s Hard Work
Fuels America’s Trip West
            Driving a Model A Ford from Weatherford to Ranger in 1928, I would’ve been worn out by the time I hit Strawn. My average speed was 35 miles an hour. Pulling off the Bankhead Alternate Highway at the first gas station I found, Marche “Zim” Zimicki might have greeted me, might have shown me around. I made such a trek Thursday, not in a Model A (and more than a little bit faster). Viewing all that Zim left behind felt like a warm handshake between new friends. Zim passed away in 1962.

            Traveling from my home to Ranger back when Zim built this place, drivers followed the Bankhead Highway from Weatherford to Mineral Wells, to Palo Pinto, toward Metcalf Gap, then they turned south to Strawn, finally attempting one steep hill west up into Ranger. The Thurber brick-paved Bankhead Highway was cobbled together from a patchwork quilt of older already-existing county roads, America’s first transcontinental highway.
Cross-country auto travel offered high adventure after WWI, not for the faint of heart. Cars often carried two spare tires in case of flats. The “Monkey Grip” cold-patch kit, with glue and about 100 little rubber patches to fix inner tube holes was as necessary as extra tanks of water for overheated radiators. My uncle could’ve followed me in a second car, if our family now was as large as it was back then. When one car “quit” (broke down), the other could tow its fallen brother to the next mechanic.

Giant billboards of the time lured westbound drivers approaching Metcalf Gap south to Strawn, onto the Bankhead Highway Alternate (now Hwy. 16) or west across the historic gap to Breckenridge. Think Route 66. At slow speeds with a car full of kin, boredom (or madness) quickly set in. Approaching Strawn from the north, stopping at Zim’s Quality Beverages to get “fuel-eats-drinks & ice”, use the outhouse and even stay in the motor court would’ve been mighty tempting.
Zim’s brick service station – restaurant – Dr. Pepper bottling plant stretched along the west side of the two-lane highway, just south of the first Palo Pinto Creek bridge (past the Necessity cutoff). The mid-October morning I visited, 42 degree silence greeted my arrival. I crawled out and walked across brick pavers to survey the abandoned brick gas station, the rotting wooden overhangs held aloft by iron tie-rods. Twenty Model A’s or Model T’s could’ve packed this station, back in the day.

My Model A now full of gas, I might have eased down the hill to the Y intersection at the filling station’s left. Travelers veered left to the Dr. Pepper bottling plant or right to the tourist court. I opened the gate to the right (with permission). Walking beneath towering pecan trees, one quickly realizes there’s more here than meets the eye. The one story “filling station” visible from Highway 16 conceals a two story labyrinth, housing a gas station (four pumps), restaurant, bar, cavernous machine shop, bank, office, kitchen and more.
Back then, a muffled clattering vibration sound would have come from the south. Across the courtyard a hulking brick warehouse that once housed the Dr. Pepper (and Coca Cola) bottling plant stares back, once supplying soft drinks to this part of the state. A “Zim’s Quality Beverages” billboard painted on its side invited passersby to pull off the highway. West from there, a five bay Dr. Pepper delivery truck garage connects. Shooting north, five fallen-in tourist court motel room shells sit abandoned, the forerunner to the modern motel.

“Kids need to be kept busy,” Zim might have told me, showing me around. There was a small gold fish pond in the days before color TV. Families could also venture south to Zim’s swimming hole in Palo Pinto Creek, just below the Watson House (now Edwards Funeral Home). It was shady and had a rope swing. There’s a story about a handicapped boy on crutches looking down at this swimming hole from the Watson House. The embankment caved in, the boy fell in the creek and drowned.
The first thing you notice about Zim’s buildings is the handsome brick work completed by Zim’s father-in-law, Pete (“Piotr) Wasieleski. When Thurber’s mines began to wind down around 1921, Pete began working for Zim. Atop gentle wall arches facing the highway, three small round brick parapets crown each capital (think a rook in chess), their symbolism lost to time. The tumbled burgundy bricks lend the building a warm glow in morning sunlight. Ornate arched brick drains and soldiered brick accents above windows reveal artistry uncommon today.

 “This land looks awfully low,” I might have suggested to Zim. He would have smiled. Pointing back toward the main highway building, you come to understand that Zim created this place to “fit”. The Bankhead’s roadbed soars fifteen feet above the bottomland you’re standing on. Zim snuggled his two story station against that roadbed. Its second floor fronts the road (was high enough). The bottom floor faces the other direction, sitting comfortably on the ground. Elaborate stone-lined ditches channel rain water to the creek. One rock-lined channel travels under the entire length of the main complex. Fit your building to the land, not the land to your building. Think Frank Lloyd Wright.
Marche (MARCH-EE) “Zim” Zimicki was born in 1897 in Pennsylvania’s rough-and-tumble coal fields. His family (originally Zamitzski) worked in Thurber’s mines by 1900, moving to Lyra’s mines by 1910 (between Strawn and Mingus). Being the only boy (three sisters), Zim and dad Pete worked in the mine and farmed (graffiti on a nearby water well records “Marche 1917”). Zim may have started mining as young as 13.

When Zim returned from WWI, capitalism’s wheel began to spin more rapidly in this creek bottom. Zim took a job nobody wanted, tearing down the old Stephens County Courthouse in Breckenridge in 30 days. One wonders if some of the pressed tin ceilings above the gas pumps come from that facility. Streamlining his family name for “only in America success”, Zamitzski became Zimicki.
Father and son pooled their income, giving them the stroke needed to buy these twenty acres along the northern branch of Palo Pinto Creek. Other nearby land holdings were added at bargain-basement prices during the Great Depression.
Zim must’ve absorbed the Thurber “vertical integration” that Colonel Hunter and W. K. Gordon infused into Texas and Pacific Coal operations, offering coal miners not only a place to work, but providing for their human needs with company stores, bars, church buildings, even a cemetery. Zim dreamed of satisfying a similar menu of his visiting Bankhead Highway guests’ needs on their journey toward the Pacific.
            This complex was and is a work in progress. Begun in the 1920s, major construction took about a year to complete. Zim built the gas station, then the restaurant, ice house, bottling plant, and travel courts. Though run by family and staff, Zim could be seen everywhere, doing everything. Zim dressed plainly, not being a “behind the scenes pencil pusher.” Before we arrived, he likely just crawled out from under a truck, rebuilding its transmission.
Zim also mastered the load-bearing engineering he observed in the overhead wooden timbers holding up the uncertain ceilings inside Thurber’s deep coal mines. Zim’s ground floor machine shop’s ceiling reveals strong concrete beams atop solid columns carrying the weight of the entire suspended second floor.
Zim built his own power plant to supply electricity to the complex using a large diesel motor. To start the diesel engine, one had to light a wick (in place of a spark plug) and stick it in a hole (filled with gas) while cranking the engine. This required a man of deep faith (or great speed).

Zim owned the Dr. Pepper and Coca Cola franchises simultaneously for awhile. Coke asked Zim to tie into Strawn’s city water and stop using his well water (still in operation). Zim told them to go to hell (diplomacy not among his virtues). Today’s Strawn Museum (open 11 – 4, Thursday - Saturday) houses several versions of Zim’s Quality Beverages heavy, opaque Dr. Pepper and Coca Cola bottles, listing Breckenridge, Strawn and Cisco as his territory. Zim might’ve also leaned toward Dr. Pepper, as they also offered Crème Soda, Lemon, Lime and Strawberry drinks in their lineup.
Zim’s ground floor machine shop was always turning out clever gadgets – inventions, cattle guards, truck repairs, and gates. Old truck frames converted into work benches still do their duty. Discarded tin Coca-Cola signs hang from the black-dark ceiling awaiting their next assignment. Zim received a patent for delivery truck racks that allowed drink cases to slide forward on rollers when other cases were removed. He built a revolving cross for Strawn’s St. John’s Catholic Church bell tower, though this was never installed.
            Zim had a bar on the second floor. Accessed from the highway’s front door or up a winding stairway from the bocci ball courts below, one delights in the stout wooden columns that frame large mirrors behind the bar. There’s a kitchen to one side, a wood-planked dining room/dance hall to the north. “It happened right here,” I felt the room’s shadows whispering, though what happened there, I may never know.
The new owner, a kind man, lifted one of the barstool seats from its pedestal and turned it over. The seats were made from truck hubs, fitted onto cams atop their poles below, just like a delivery truck’s axle. I know Zim is smiling in heaven as I reveal his ingenuity and thrift. The bar counter’s base features corners of ridged glass blocks. The juke box surely played country swing dance tunes as working class couples circled the dance floor, gold-trimmed ceiling fans click-clocking lazy circles into the pre-air conditioning summertime air.

Between the restaurant and the backyard tourist court sat picnic tables, barbeque pits and bocci ball courts under shade trees providing travelers a much needed overnight oasis. The southern room of the filling station still boasts a full-sized bank safe built into the wall. There’s a story that Zim had a little bank for awhile, though sheltering Zim’s steady cash flow seems as likely (or perhaps a lack of trust in post-Depression banks).
Under the highway bridge outside one observes graffiti, colorfully modern and vintage. One scribe writes “Wiley Wells…From Buffalo, N.Y…going to God’s country. March 29, 1929.” I hope Wiley made it. Seven months later, Mr. Wells’ young nation plunged headlong beneath the waves of its first Great Depression.
 “Zim was tight-fisted, inventive, and versatile,” remembers nephew Leo Bielinski, “and quite an accordion player.” In the late 1940s, Edward Dumith was building a home in Mingus. Being Zim’s friend, Dumith hoped to buy some of the old (but solid) lumber salvaged from the Stephens County Courthouse at a “buddy” price. No such luck. Dumith could’ve bought lumber from the lumber yard at the same price. Zim used old Magnolia Beer signs to flash the bottling plant’s roof. He used discarded Coca-Cola signs to form the restaurant’s stout structural concrete foundations.
            One neighbor child remembers an army of people constructing Zim’s. As Thurber, Mineral City and other area coal mines were winding down, cheap labor was plentiful. These ex-coal miners (doing the work of three men today) did the heavy lifting, with Zim leading the way. In addition to Wasieleski, Zim’s brother-in-law Big Joe Daskevich helped construct the buildings, later rising to become bottling supervisor. Zim’s dad Pete (then about 55) was also an old miner who could handle hard work.
Family helped Zim achieve his dreams. Zim’s second generation immigrant imagination helped provide for his family and employees during wrenching economic times. At family gatherings Zim played his accordion. Wife Stella kept the books. When Zim and Stella married, they built a small two-bedroom wood home just south of the bottling works. With all of their wealth, they continued to live there until 1960, when they built the still-standing two story brick home just west of the original house.
            Zim wasn’t famous for paying high wages. When he bought ranchland around Strawn in 1938, Frank Bielinski and Tut Daskevich were paid $1.50 a day digging post holes by hand, ten hours a day. Of course, like today, any job was a blessing. When Zim’s son (Marche Pete) asked his dad to help pay for his senior year at Texas A & M vet school, Big Zim said, “Gosh, Marche, this school is costing too much. It might be cheaper if I just bought the damn school myself.”
            When the highway connecting Weatherford to Ranger was finally completed in the 1930s, it effectively killed Zim’s roadside business. He went into ranching, never missing a beat.
I was tipped to look for a hidden compartment built beneath the highway or bridge, to conceal beer or moonshine. I found no evidence of that. Zim didn’t produce moonshine, both because of his upright wife Stella and because it would’ve exposed his prosperous business to seizure by federal revenuers. Hiding his own hootch from his eagle-eyed wife Stella, however, keeping her from knowing he was “nipping at the bottle” was certainly a possibility.
Zim did own a honky tonk to the north in Metcalf Gap after Prohibition was repealed. This was a rough place, frequented by thirsty cedar hackers (talk about hard work). But Zim was all about making money. When beer cans came along, most drinkers used a “key” to open them. Zim invented a foot-operated can opener for his bartenders, to speed his liquid commerce along.
Shortly before Zim’s death, he was asked to speak to the Strawn Lion’s Club. He told this story: “It was a full moonlit night, freezing cold. The birds had nothing to eat and they were miserable. But an old bull in the corral had just let a nice steaming cow pie. A mockingbird flew down and gobbled this up. Now he was warm, and full, and contented, so he began to loudly sing. The disturbed rancher who was trying to fall asleep grabbed his 12-gauge and blew the bird away. The moral of this story: When you’re full of BS, keep your mouth shut.”
            Zim finally sold the Dr. Pepper bottling operation to M. L. King in 1937, who moved it to Ranger. One also finds Zim’s Heileman Brewing distributorship flyers (with offices in Strawn, San Angelo and Big Spring) among historic Zim literature. The multiple offerings of all Zim’s enterprises may never be known.
            Zim would have been pleased, I think, that another visitor to his American dream got what he came for. Several that lived in the Strawn area and many that traveled through it came to know the man Zim Zimicki by his works. I add myself to that list. The day warmed as I climbed in my car and drove away.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dodson Prairie

Silent Night, Holy Night
 Visits Palo Pinto County

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…

There’s a quiet serenity drifting across the Dodson Prairie tonight, a peaceful blessing rising in my heart the farther west I drive.

Dodson Prairie’s St. Boniface Catholic Church will celebrate its 100th anniversary on its patron’s day June 5, 2012. Masses were said in this stately building regularly until the fateful letter from Bishop Delaney arrived in May 1997. Not enough people, it said. Better move your flock south to Strawn. There were 20 parishioners attending St. Boniface pretty steady back then.

I pull to the corner in front of the church, slide my car lightly through its unlocked front gate. They’re having Wednesday night rosary in ten minutes. I invited myself.

Friends greet friends and talk outside – about who was in the hospital, about visiting grandkids, about last week’s tragic death of a man they all know, about yesterday’s rain…thank God for that, and about a fall off a pickup truck running board that resulted in this new blasted walking cane. There are two canes in attendance this night, joined by one rolling walker. The median age is high 70s, middle 80s. They are casual in jeans and sweaters, work shirts. They close the door to the night wind outside, once all are inside.

This church used to be filled from front to back. Tonight these friends sit together in the back, sit in the last three rows of hard wooden pews with room left over. There are twelve people, if I counted correctly. This sanctuary has plank wooden floors, soaring seasoned stained glass windows, potted poinsettias, a Christmas tree and life. Two majestic white candles burn in the far distance, atop the front altar. Behind that a red vigil candle flickers its soft light toward these parishioners in invitation.

St. Boniface’s Church has always been a mission church. They still have the occasional funeral, wedding, or baptism out here. Weddings can fill this old building up, I’m told. The diocese pays the insurance bill, but this community of friends pays for everything else, pays with the labor of their own hands in many cases.

The petition part of tonight’s service is unlike any I’ve ever heard. I like the way these people do their petitions better. Petitions are prayers to God asking for the healing, care or strengthening of people, the Church, or most anything suitable that comes to mind. Most Catholic churches recite a formal litany of lines as they fire these prayers off toward heaven.

This night, these older people are in quiet conversation with their Lord and with each other. “We need to pray for so and so, whose husband died last week,” they use only her first name since they know who’s being prayed for personally. They all nod. They all pray. Another says softly to the others, “She’ll be okay. She’s a strong woman.” One lady prays that someone she knows can find work, talks about the hardship this family faces each dinner time. I have a picture in my mind of a benevolent grandfather God rocking beside his fireplace, listening, attentive, pen in hand writing these folks’ prayers in His little book. My imagination doesn’t comply with official omniscient dogma sometimes.

But that’s what I see. Their rosary begins:

Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…

Weathered hands worn wrinkled and tender through 70 and 80 and 95 years of life hold sparkling rosary beads before them, the first bead pinched between two fingers as their circle prayer begins.

Blessed are thou among women…

These folks aren’t praying TO Mary, as is often wrongly believed. It’s like when I need a big favor, I call someone sitting close to the Decision Maker, someone who can get his attention – in this case His mom. The youngest in the room is my age. This community of faith hopes some young people will move out on the Prairie, one day soon.

The Gospel reading tonight is about the man who hates his brother, a wasted reminder out here. The family names seated around me read like a century-old roll call to the history of these parts: Teichman, Holub, Bearden, Boyd, Nowak and others.

The service ends. There are chocolate chip cookies by the back door. I talk to a few, cut up with a couple more, get told about the day in 1943 when the school kids loaded up their stuff and tromped from the old school up the hill to the new school. These folks are those 1940s kids.

“How long are y’all going to keep this going?” I ask, then wish I hadn’t.

“As long as we’re able,” one kindly older woman replies. “We’re going to continue even if there are only two or three of us.”

Where two or three are gathered in His name…

As I leave through the gate I look back at the small covey of cars parked around this still-so-holy church. I take one last photograph, knowing that what I saw tonight will too soon pass from this earth. The song remains. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace…

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Chrystal Falls

Chrystal passed away Monday...I wrote a story about her several years back, below:

My Daddy wouldn’t let that happen
The Tudor Community speaks

I’m sorry I haven’t written in awhile. It’s been a tough year.
I went to see Chrystal Falls last Friday. Several had pointed me in her direction, once they learned I was interested in Tudor Road, in the now-vanished Tudor-Gourdneck Community.
Mrs. Falls was born a Jackson in 1917, at the foot of County Knob, a landmark mountain hugging the eastern boundary of Eastland County. Her older brothers walked to the Tudor School all the way from the Knob. Her daddy later bought a closer place, on Tudor Road when she was six-years-old. He didn’t want six-year-old Chrystal to have to cross the creek, on her way to school.
She thinks the Tudors or Mitchells might have owned their farm first. You remember me telling you about that fine rock cellar at the turn in the road? That cellar was already there when they moved in. As was the house, also still standing.
The one room Tudor School sat by the cemetery, opening its one door as far back as the 1870s. Some called the place Gourdneck, don’t ask me why. The school cistern, located off the corner of the school building, still waits out there in the woods. Mrs. Falls attended first through sixth grade, the year the school closed down, the first year of the Great Depression for most – 1929.
Her family shopped in Strawn and Mingus. Mrs. Falls’ mom liked cornbread and there was a corn mill in Mingus at the time. They shopped for groceries at Watson Brothers in Strawn. That was an all-day trip back then.
Mrs. Falls was the only student in Tudor’s first grade. There was another girl in third grade. Miss Vivian was her teacher. Also Walter Michell’s wife, Mabell. She was of the Pope Family.
That old wooden building hosted school during the week. Saturdays were for Easter egg hunts, picnics sometimes. Sunday was for church. Fourth of July was ice cream, turned by hand in a wooden ice cream freezer – one of her favorite days, she recalled with a smile. Everyone from the community was there –maybe fifty, maybe 100. Mrs. Falls graduated from Strawn High School.
Whenever there was a Tudor Community church revival, the minister stayed at the Jackson house (her mom cooked). Her Dad was a Baptist. Tudor Road used to continue on straight into Strawn, she said. I’d wondered if maybe it ended at Peter Davidson’s first place, between Strawn and Thurber (neither town was there in 1856, back when he first landed on the banks of Palo Pinto Creek).
Mrs. Falls dad was Willie Jackson (William Henry Harrison Jackson), who married Nora Gailey. Mr. Jackson was a fine man, one of four children.
Willie’s dad abandoned the family when the boy was small, up in Arkansas. Just up and left. Eventually those four kids were taken away from their mom by some judge. Willie remembered seeing his mother sob as the kids were removed from their home.
So this is the part I was telling you about, when someone you’ve never met teaches you something. Just like he’s standing right there in front of you. Willie talked about being hungry as a child. You don’t hear that from folks, not in this country. Not today. He never forgot that. But listen to this.
After the judge took Willie from his mom (and his siblings, who were separated), he ended up with the Vaught Family in Desdemona. I’m not sure if Willie was adopted or just taken in. They worked him like a slave, beat him even. This became his life, for awhile. One Saturday that family hooked up their wagon to go to town, gave him a long list of chores to do “or you know what’ll happen to you”. Then they left.
Eleven-year-old Willie took off, escaped, wading up the middle of Hog Creek so they couldn’t track him in the water. The Vaughts later seined their tank, thinking maybe he’d drowned himself. Think about that for a minute.
Willie went up the creek, then took off north and a little east, cross country, through the brush. After many, many miles of up and down valleys and desolate wild country, he ended up at the Gailey Place, east of Tudor Road, south of the Tudor School. Willie had never seen the Gaileys before in his life.
He knocked on the Gailey’s front door. Grandma came to the door. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Can I do some work?” The Gaileys fed him, took him in, and raised him like one of their own. Willie worshipped Grandma Ada Gailey, the only mother he’d ever known, since being taken from his own mom’s wing so young. Willie lived in the Gailey house with the kids. He was the one who wrote out the verse that’s on Grandma Gailey’s tombstone in Tudor Cemetery: “She was a kind and affectionate wife, mother and a friend to all.”
The Vaughts didn’t find Willie until many years later. Grandpa Gailey told them they’d better just leave the boy be. That struggle made Willie a better man.
As an adult, Willie rode to work on horseback at the Number One Thurber mine, digging coal. He was devastated when the mines shut down. There’s a picture of the Number One mine in the Thurber museum, I’m told.
Willie also farmed and ranched. The family planted a garden – did okay. “We were never hungry. Daddy saw to that. He’d never let that happen,” Mrs. Falls wanted me to know. They didn’t have electricity down Tudor way until after she married.
Some names I heard, but don’t yet know. Dutch and Walter Mitchell (brothers), the Popes, the Gaileys (Mrs. Falls’ mom Nora was the oldest).
Mrs. Falls moved away when she was 24 (marrying George Falls). They traveled all over the world, after a childhood of staying close to home. The Falls’ trip to the Holy Land was a “trip of a lifetime,” she told me.
Times are hard right now, in Texas, all over really. Picking up the newspaper, watching the evening news can be the toughest part of the day. There was a time, not so long ago, when survival grew from the sweat of one’s brow. When folks had problems, they prayed, usually together. When young Willie Jackson showed up hungry, what he asked for was work.
“We were never hungry. Daddy saw to that.”
I hope things are good with you. Please take care.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Talpa, Texas November 2013

The old buildings, like old people, still standing, weathered, wounded, dying but not yet dead, stand yet ‘cause they have a purpose, or think they do, keeping bales of hay dry or hoping, one last time, that one last chapter still awaits up this trail somewhere.

(Note the electric meter still in place...ever hopeful).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Little Thurber Girl Story

“Daddy, I’m scared.”
My little daughter’s voice comes to me, always in my sleep. Awakening, finding her piercing blue eyes seeking the safety of her parents’ bed, safety from some noise, some bad dream. Sharing sanctuary restores peace.
Saturday was different.
Walking up unexpectedly that day on the final resting place of another family’s daughter twisted my insides as few tragedies have. I’m guessing she was six or eight. A wild guess, I admit. She lies alone in an area of the Forgotten – a sea of faceless burial plots sleeping atop a quiet hilltop, above what was once one of Texas’ most bustling boom towns – Thurber, Texas.
            Thurber Cemetery crowns Graveyard Hill, a lonely place halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene just off Interstate 20. The cemetery is nearing the mid-point of a restoration project, marking the graves of the Forgotten with headstones, awaiting their full return to the pages of history.
            One has a lot of time to think, working alone in remote cemeteries. This day, cold, wet, clouds low on the horizon, I come across this grave.
“Daddy, I’m scared.”
            Some days discoveries like this make sense to me, almost like the cemetery is teaching aloud whatever lesson her Story finds needful. Though it may be a writer’s romantic delusion, such days often lead to months-later discoveries, the genesis of which cannot be empirically explained.
This little girl’s eternal nap lies below a tangle of gray-blond dead winter grass. A white PVC cross lies on its side in three pieces, a freshly-driven wooden survey replacing it. The stake stares back, “FC” written in black marker announcing this grave’s rediscovery – Female Child. Within months, a backhoe will set a new stone marker where this hammered wooden stake marks time. Hundreds of nearby 1888 - 1930 graves will also receive these memorials.
Several days of bitter winter rain stopped yesterday. The ground is spongy. Uncertain. I hear some melancholy bird in the distance. I hear the distant hum of Interstate 20, plowing through what was once a dense maze of company-owned Thurber homes, each three rooms, each like the other, each renting for $6 a month.
This girl lies about 75 yards from the Protestant Gate. There are no graves to either side of her. I don’t know how long she’s been here. She isn’t in the mood to talk. Her final resting place is situated mere feet inside the Catholic fence, where the fence used to stand anyway. Thurber Cemetery was divided into African-American, Catholic, and Protestant cemeteries, each separately fenced, each accessed by different roads through different gates. The path to Eternity required a map.
This daughter’s nearness to that fence suggests that her family planned on its use as a landmark, to find their lost child later. When they could afford a more permanent marker. One can imagine a freshly-painted white wooden cross, consumed years later by wildfire, or a misguided bulldozer, blading parts of the cemetery in the 1960s.
Restoration run amuck.
Twelve feet from this girl’s grave lies Lillia May Burch, Daughter of  A.W. & Jessie Burch. Born March 27, 1893, died August 8, 1894 if I am reading the worn white stone correctly. Her birthday approaches. A dove is carved at the top of her arch-top monument. A poem below: “Our darling one has gone before, to greet us on the golden shore.”    
Lillia May’s headstone was broken in half, left to right, then sometime later pieced back together. We know who she is, at least her name.
Twelve feet away from our girl.
Enough width for two more graves between them.
Or a jump rope.
Two gravesites that stand empty.
Thurber Cemetery’s current restoration will repair the cowardice of vandals, and give markers to the estimated 1,100 souls who now sleep beneath dark brown sand rocks, or fat red bricks or mostly, nothing. There are three known mass graves in this cemetery, thought to be from the epidemics that swept this town in the early 1900s. No fatal mass mining accidents ever occurred here. The remains within one of those mass graves are interred with bodies overlapping, the haste of panicked burial, to thwart further contamination, one surmises.
Other parts of the cemetery host children’s plots clustered together as close as geometry allows, to keep each other company, I hope.
To keep each other safe.
I take frequent breaks, working these sections. These kids played with toys bought down the hill at the Thurber Mercantile. Our girl may have gotten a small doll, apples, oranges, maybe pecans for Christmas that fateful year. There was a company school, and if she was Catholic, she likely received additional training from parish catechists.
The Italian families sang loud happy songs, drank dark grappo wine, baked fine Italian bread outside in ovens, washed clothes over open fires. They were a joyful people, these Italians, at home with the 17 other nationalities that populated this town.
This girl’s alone grave suggests her family must have moved away, perhaps to Illinois or California when Thurber’s mines shut down. If they went up the hill to Ranger, there would be a rock here, a crude concrete headstone.
Here lies some coal miner’s daughter.
She could have had long dark black hair, dark brown almond eyes. Could have been northern Italian as most were in this area of the graveyard. Obviously Catholic, baptized down the hill at the parish church, now across the highway below New York Hill.
I look for meaning in these stories. One has many chances, if one will but open his eyes and see. More commercial writers call these tales sentimental. One loses points for these “trite writing conventions of the past”. This girl’s daddy was almost certainly a coal miner. Perhaps the ore carts of black rock he shoveled the day before her death fueled a Texas and Pacific Railroad locomotive pushing settlers hard across the adolescent southwestern American prairie.
Their people’s story was bigger than each individual.
Their story helped settle this great country.
I try for a moral, and fail.
It’s hard to reframe some family’s daughter’s demise in a positive way. She probably died of influenza, smallpox or some other silent thief. My notes have sulked quietly in this writing spiral for three days, stubbornly refusing to give me my happy ending.
This girl’s story likely haunted her parents’ last breaths. Her brothers and sisters carried their parents’ hurt touchstones in their hearts’ pockets, though their sister’s memory surely dwindled with time. Her nieces and nephews, the generation behind hers, the five generations since she passed have probably lost her completely – unless there is a family Bible, a diary, or a torn photograph tucked inside a metal bread box in some too-hot summer attic, in some half-off antique store.
I type this in the warmth of the Arlington Public Library, two hours til my next appointment. I receive a text message on my phone from home: “Got Savanna from school. She tired. Had soup and now juice. Tucked in our bed. Keeping close eye on, as Shelby and Lillie both went to doctor today. Mrs. Dugan said there is something going around the school.”
My own daughter Savannah, six-years-old, slept fitfully last night, coughing, having trouble breathing. Her hacking cough deepened with each passing hour. We propped her up on a pillow. We give her medicine that some “evil pharmaceutical” invented within the last five years. If she’d not been better in the morning, we would have taken her to her doctor.
Just like always, she would get better.
Not like always.
“Daddy, I’m scared.”
Eleven decades ago, this newfound Thurber daughter’s family might have listened to that same cough, to their daughter’s labored breathing. Might have sat up with her, prayed over her, covered her forehead with cool cloths. The Catholic priest, able to speak seven languages, might have been called out in the middle of the night. The faith that I feel in our family’s doctor would for these people have felt like bottomless dread, perhaps for her mother – soaring panic. These hardworking people would have whispered prayers, likely in Latin, to the same God that watched over my daughter last night.
They would have prayed in faith, in hope.
They would have felt a jeopardy I have never known.
Ora pro nobis, sancta Dei Genitrix, Ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
My own littlest daughter gets tucked in for her nap. I look at her sleeping – so peaceful, so at odds with the full-out curiosity that fires her explosive energy. When Savannah awakes, I will hear her words, by the thousands, machine-gunning every Little-Girl-Thought that passes through her zip code.
When she awakes, I will know her better.
When she awakes.
I write to a little Thurber daughter, may you never be forgotten. I wish I had more to offer you. I wish I had an explanation. I hope that your family made it to their next home. I hope that they wrote down your name, perhaps a word or two about your sweet little girl nature. I hope that your parents’ words pass in front of me someday soon.
That my eyes are open, to meet you.
If your family someday comes looking for you in the Thurber Cemetery, based upon some scrap of tattered something they’ve hand down, your hilltop resting place, though your name still unknown, will be easy for them to find. I hope they help protect these hallowed places.
Someday, someone will come looking to reclaim you. Though silent, I heard you whisper at last. Now, like my own two daughters, you never stop talking.
I like that, about little girls.
I hope that other Thurber families, that other families from all over Texas, when they see the crudely-wrought nameless tombstone you will shortly receive, that they will remember their own family’s long-ago, lost little girls.
That they will remember you.
That they will protect you.
Thurber, Texas


Monday, November 11, 2013

Acker Bridge Today

So several years ago I learned that an old Frontier Brigade outpost was located just north of the Acker Community, in southern Stephens County. Kinfolk are buried not too far from there. After a tough winter, several childhood deaths and a doctor whose name I wll someday learn, and besmirch, my great-grandparents made the trip south on foot to the Cheaney Community in Eastland County. On foot, because the doctor required payment of their team, wagon and grain for his care of the now-deceased children.

So back then, I'm looking for the crossing of a finger of a creek, on the old road between the fort and the city that would later be Palo Pinto. I have a map. I find the crossing, and look to the north, because that's where these horseback Frontier Brigade heroes made it across then then-flowing creek. Studied it. Found it Maybe, if you stretch your imagination.

So today, on my way from Somewhere Else, I chance a glance to the south. This old girder suspension bridge is what I see. Is what I would've seen if I'd looked "other than the map" years ago. It didn't tie to the story from back then. But it's a story, nonetheless. A lesson, along an old path, with hopefully better eyes.

There's a bridge similar to this on the Gordon to Stephenville cotton trail. Built by a famous bridge maker, way back. I couldn't find a plate or label on this one, to confirm or deny. But it's cool, and out there, still.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Backyard Burials Have Stopped, The Mysterious Cause Remains Albert Whitehead buried people in his back yard. There, I said it. Before you phone the sheriff, please know that the last spade full of dirt was tamped into place back in 1960. Appropriately, this last burial was Albert himself. At least 17 graves preceded his, behind that wood-framed Whitehead house. Where the garden should’ve been. Mr. Whitehead was a good guy, a pillar of the Thurber community. His house sat on a street among many other houses, roughly east, north-east of where New York Hill Restaurant sits today. In the vernacular of the day, he was “colored”. I can’t imagine that his neighbors back then didn’t know what was going on. Back behind the house. Albert Whitehead towered above folks at six foot four, a large booming voice and a “hearty laugh” to match. One imagines a twinkle in his eye, a joke just told, in the photographs I’ve seen of this gentleman. Mr. Whitehead was a little boy during the Civil War. He died at 98 years of age, four years before LBJ’s civil rights legislation was signed into law. He never heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Didn’t sound like he needed to. I like Albert. He had five wives. A real contender. He may have had two at once, near the end. He didn’t care what folks thought. He married his last known wife Liza when he was 84. Hope springs eternal. Liza was the daughter of his fourth wife Belle (Liza conceived by another man). Albert outlived all of his wives, though he produced no surviving offspring. Albert was well liked in Thurber, Grant Town, Thurber Junction and Mingus. Said to be the son of slaves, the story was told that Albert walked the 60 miles to Thurber from Fort Worth, looking for work in the winter of 1903. He’d just completed a railroad construction job. Why he didn’t take the train is not known. The T & P Coal Co. imported many of its workers of whatever color to Thurber by train. Toward the end of Albert’s foot-bound journey, he navigated by following the black coal-fired smoke clouds that consumed that coal mining boomtown’s sky. When he topped the Gordon Cutoff hill, he saw Thurber’s brick plant, power house, town square and many neatly-tended rows of red and green miner’s homes. They say that the hope of a fresh start fired his imagination and fueled his steps. Albert’s house, Number 265, was just north of the black chain link fenced cemetery, unlabeled at the back of the puzzlingly-named W. K. Gordon Museum of Industrial History. If you’ve visited the turquoise-colored miner’s house down the slope from New York Hill, that’s likely what Albert’s home looked like. His house was near the west end of the Thurber Brick Yard. If you look at the large Whitehead Cemetery, then imagine it being behind this man’s small house, you see very quickly that Albert had a yard full. By 1936, most everything was gone from Thurber, but the T & P allowed Albert to stay, 74 years old and nowhere else to go. Albert worked a gray Jenny mule around the Thurber Junction/Mingus area about 1950, the last remembered working mule in those parts. Albert plowed gardens for local residents and did other odd jobs. Saturdays this man would hitch his mule to his wagon and drive with his wife Liza two miles north to Thurber Junction/Mingus for supplies. He visited his white friends and was known to enjoy a few quarts of beer. Sometimes a second black woman rode with the couple, giving rise to the rumor that Albert was now marrying two-at-a-time. The story was that Wife Number Two had run her husband off and moved in with Albert and Liza. Miss Liza would ride up front with Albert on the wagon seat, while his backup bride rode behind, her legs dangling off the rear end of his wagon. Albert’s Thurber house burned around 1955, so the Whiteheads moved to Stephenville. Liza died two years later and was buried behind where their house used to be. Three years after that, Albert passed away. If you scan historical documents, then examine the site itself, it appears that five male adults, seven female adults, four male children and one male infant are at rest there. The only marked graves are Liza Whitehead (1875-1957), Albert Whitehead (1862 – 1960) and Henryetta Halversen (April 9, 1862 – August 29, 1936). Henryetta could have been a wife, mother-in-law or friend. These three names are recorded on steel funeral home nameplates. There are no marble tombstones, nor any sign announcing this site as a cemetery. Oral history suggests that the unknowns could be Mr. & Mrs. Ed Jackson and John Bennett. It has been suggested that some of Albert’s wives may be buried here. One of the male children (stillborn) is thought to be Albert’s son (Nathan Griffin?). Why did Albert not take these people to the black section of the company-owned Thurber Cemetery a mere quarter of a mile away? Graves were free for the asking. What would T & P Coal Co. management have thought about an employee burying people in his backyard (on company property)? T & P ran its town in a very round peg, round hole manner. The ground in the black section of Thurber Cemetery hill is famous for its shallow rockiness. Graves were often dug with dynamite, with miners down the hill asking “who died?” when periodic explosions rang out. There’s a story that the road to the black section of Thurber Cemetery washed out in the 1930s (though the stillborn child, if indeed buried in Albert’s yard, predates this). There are several other 1930s burials in Thurber Cemetery, nonetheless, so this reason seems unlikely. When Thurber was winding down, Albert remained behind as a caretaker for the few buildings and houses that were not torn down or moved. When Texas & Pacific brass traveled out from Cowtown to hunt and fish, Mr. Whitehead served as their guide. The Whitehead Cemetery was neglected during the 1960s, becoming overgrown with mesquite and cactus. Cattle grazed among the fallen brown earth rocks. It’s not known if any marble tombstones were ever there. Old timers would mention that there was a cemetery “over there” from time to time and point below New York Hill. Roland McMinn, a local historian and brick collector from Mineral Wells was exploring around the old Thurber Brick Yard around 1986 when he happened upon the little cemetery. After showing some friends his discovery, the site was cleaned and a fence was built. At the time, only seven graves were visible. There is no way to know the first burial date, though it’s thought to be after 1903, when Albert moved in. Few hard and fast answers concerning the Whitehead Cemetery or why it got started remain. The graveyard is fenced. The grass is mowed. And Mr. Whitehead isn’t talking. The burials have stopped, for now… {A Texas Historical Marker will be placed at a ceremony Sunday, November 10, 2013 at 2 p.m. on the grounds of the W.K. Gordon Center for Industrial History...or really, at the cemetery. It got there first.) Special thanks to Leo S. Bielinski, Ph. D. Jeff may be reached at jeffclarktexas@gmail.com..